Lawmakers hear calls for ethics reform

Commission takes aim at corruption

click to enlarge “My main concern is where we're going from this day forward,” Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton says.
“My main concern is where we're going from this day forward,” Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton says.

What's a conflict of interest?

That's what Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, asked last week during a hearing of the legislature's Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform. The question came one day after Gov. J.B. Pritzker called for an end to corruption in his state of the state address. That same day, police, apparently unable to get documents they wanted upon request, served a search warrant on House Speaker Michael Madigan to get records relating to sexual harassment accusations against former state Rep. Jack Franks. Cops are investigating potential charges of sexual assault, official misconduct, stalking and aggravated battery, according to the warrant.


The reform commission co-chaired by Harris was convened after three legislators last year were charged with corruption by federal prosecutors. Two days before Harris asked what constitutes a conflict of interest, former state Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty, acknowledging he'd taken bribes to help a red-light camera company. Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, resigned after being charged with bribery, but Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Chicago, remains on the state payroll while under indictment for alleged embezzlement for reportedly taking a no-work union job. A fourth legislator, Sen. Terry Link, D-Indian Creek, is reportedly under investigation for filing false tax returns and has been identified in media reports as wearing a wire to help the feds catch Arroyo.


There was talk of a citizen legislature during last week's hearing, when lawmakers spoke about a few bad apples in an otherwise healthy barrel and said that reform aimed at increasing transparency and catching crooks shouldn't be so onerous as to discourage ordinary folks from seeking elective office. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 states require legislators to recuse themselves from votes in the events of conflicts of interest. Illinois leaves it up to the lawmaker to decide.


Should a farmer who is a legislator, Harris asked, be prohibited from voting on measures amending rules governing vehicle weights on roads during harvest season? What about the state budget? Harris, who is House majority leader, pointed out that budgets often contain what can be construed as subsidies for farmers, so, should a farmer be allowed to vote on a budget that would benefit farmers? "Those are not hypotheticals," Harris said. "These are things that regularly occur."


Constituents expect elected leaders to vote on budgets, Georgia Logothetis, assistant director of Common Cause Illinois, explained. "When we talk about the examples you mentioned, we're talking about big buckets, right? Like property tax. If you own a house, you can't vote on property tax issues? Or, if I have children, do I have to abstain from education issues? We're not talking about big-bucket issues. When we talk about conflict of interest, we're really talking about straws: What is the one policy that, when it is passed at the General Assembly, will siphon down to you and give you such a direct benefit that it is a common sense kind of thing and everybody says 'Come on – really?'"


Beyond mandatory recusal in events of conflicts of interest, the commission also discussed statements of economic benefit, which have become known as "none sheets" because that's what elected officials typically write when required to disclose financial interests outside their public duties. The rules are so loose, advocates for good government testified, that public officials with sources of income outside their public office can fail to report them without getting in trouble. Legislators who don't disclose outside interests can be prosecuted, but that's never happened.


Lawmakers also talked about revolving doors. In Illinois, former legislators can immediately become lobbyists after leaving office, or even while serving in the General Assembly. While a legislator, Arroyo was registered as a lobbyist in the city of Chicago, which is allowed so long as he didn't lobby state government. State Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, who co-chairs the reform commission, also is a lobbyist registered with the city of Chicago. Former state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, became a lobbyist upon resigning from the legislature last year, which, also, is allowed – he helped push through a state law legalizing recreational marijuana after leaving public office. Most states don't allow former legislators to immediately become lobbyists, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with the majority barring lobbying activity for between six months and two years after leaving public office. In Florida, voters recently approved a measure that will ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for six years.


During his testimony, Brad Cole, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League, suggested that legislators wishing to curb corruption might want to consider amending the state Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act so that the laws mandating transparency in other branches of government also apply to the legislature, which now is exempted.


Outside the hearing, Harris said that expanding sunshine laws to legislators is outside the purview of the reform commission. Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, appointed to the commission by Pritzker, said the commission is gathering information. A report is due at the end of next month.


"We'll be looking at all of the proposals and, on March 31, we'll be able to present whatever recommendations we have," Stratton said. Asked how long former legislators should have to wait before becoming lobbyists, Stratton said she didn't have a specific time period in mind. "The bottom line is, the sentiment that leaving the legislature one day and becoming a lobbyist the next day should not be the case," she said.


Was it appropriate for Lang, a top Madigan lieutenant while a legislator, to become a lobbyist upon leaving the legistlature?


"My main concern is where we're going from this day forward," Stratton answered. "I think we've all identified some of the things we need to change, and that's what we're working on."


Contact Bruce Rushton at
brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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